VA Settles Religious Discrimination Claim Filed by PJI

Long Beach, CA – After nearly three years of legal wrangling, the Veterans Administration hospital in Long Beach has settled a religious discrimination claim filed by Pacific Justice Institute on behalf of an employee in the hospital’s Patient Business Office.

The employee, Marvin Stewart, was given a written reprimand and warned by supervisors not to express religious viewpoints or sentiments via inter-office e-mail. Meanwhile, other employees were allowed to express a wide variety of other opinions, and one supervisor regularly e-mailed an inspirational “thought of the day” to the entire business office staff. Mr. Stewart contacted Pacific Justice Institute, which confronted his supervisors with their unfair treatment. However, supervisors insisted that they had a right to suppress speech based solely on its religious or political content.

Pacific Justice Institute filed a formal complaint with the VA in 2005, and an independent investigator compiled a case file several inches thick. The VA sought summary judgment in its favor, but after more than a year of waiting, an administrative judge denied their request and set the matter for a hearing. Prior to the hearing, the VA was willing to negotiate with PJI attorneys, and a settlement was finally reached this spring. The settlement clarifies that e-mail use in the Patient Business Office will not be censored based on religious content. The VA also provided a modest monetary sum to Mr. Stewart.

PJI Staff Attorney Matthew McReynolds, who battled the VA for nearly three years on Mr. Stewart’s behalf, stated, “This case was never about publicity or money. It was about forcing federal bureaucrats to acknowledge that they cannot arbitrarily censor their employees’ speech just because it happens to be religious. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight, but the muzzle has been removed. We are very pleased with this outcome.”

Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, added, “Religious speech is not toxic or dangerous; it is a vital part of the free flow of ideas and viewpoints. If anything, we should be encouraging public servants to draw inspiration and new ideas from sources outside the walls of a government building.”